Themes

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1194

Truth and Lies
The Autobiography of Mark Twain begins with a preface from Twain that states the "frankest and freest and privatest product of the human mind is a love letter,’’ and that with his autobiography, he intends to be this frank and honest with his readers. The book is saturated with references to truth. However, when one compares Twain's autobiographical accounts with real-life events, they do not always match, a fact noted by many reviewers. Indeed, Twain himself admits at the beginning of the work that he does not always get his memories right. He notes he used to remember his brother Henry being burned in a fire when he was a baby. Twain notes that it was "remarkable that I should cling to the delusion for thirty years that I did remember it—for of course it never happened.’’

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Twain himself admits on several occasions he may not be telling the truth. For example, he relates how he sold a dog that was not his so that he could collect his reward."Now then, that is the tale. Some of it is true,’’ he writes.

Within the narrative of Twain's life, the concept of truth features prominently. As a child, Twain was a troublemaker and lied to his mother or hid information from her so often that she did not believe him even when he was telling the truth. Twain also discusses the concept of trickery, both his own and others.

Overall, Twain seems to support the telling of white lies, but not truly dishonest acts that hurt people. When Twain hires his nephew-in-law Webster to work for him in his new publishing company, he gives Webster a good salary and names the company after him. However, Webster wants more. He swindles his uncle into signing a contract that turns all control over to him. Says Twain, "Under the preceding contracts Webster had been my paid servant; under the new one I was his slave, his absolute slave, and without salary.’’

Vanity
Vanity is another key theme in the book. To extend the Webster example, after he swindles Twain out of his company, Webster takes a number of management actions based on his vanity that eventually sink the company. These actions include insisting on expensive offices that are larger than necessary and publishing all books that are offered directly to him, not Twain. After the huge success of the Grant book that Twain secured, Webster takes the credit for its success. ‘‘In his obscure days his hat was number six and a quarter,'' says Twain. "In these latter days he was not able to get his head into a barrel.’’

Other characters also exhibit vanity, most notably Twain himself. When one of his friends asks him if he can name the American author with the most widespread popularity, Twain notes, "I thought I could but it didn't seem to me that it would be modest to speak out, in the circumstances.’’ Twain's friend notices Twain's silence and puts him in his place with the comment, ‘‘Save your delicacy for another time—you are not the one.’’

On another occasion, near the end of his life Twain receives an honorary degree from Oxford. He notes that it is long overdue and that he should have received the degree long before now, because others who are less talented than him have been receiving degrees in the meantime. Says Twain, "I have stood at the head of my guild during all that time, with none to dispute the place with me.’’

When it comes to discussing the vanity of others, Twain is very quick to criticize, most notably in several chapters about Bret Harte, in which Twain provides examples of Harte's vanity. When a wealthy benefactor of Harte's sends Harte's stack of IOUs back to Harte, offering to wipe Harte's debt clean as an act of friendship, Harte apparently "fired the bale back at him, accompanying it with a letter which was all afire with insulted dignity.’’ On another occasion, Twain is with Harte in a New York hotel, getting ready to deliver a play they have written together. The theater is down the street, and Twain assumes they will walk. However, Harte, who is wearing some fancy clothes that are badly ‘‘out of repair,’’ puts on airs for the hotel clerk and pays him a dollar (ten times the normal fee) to deliver the play for him.

Mortality
The fragile quality of human life plays an important role in Twain's autobiography. True to the times he lives in, people are susceptible to many fatal and crippling illnesses, including many of Twain's family and friends.

Twain's view of death changes throughout his life. When he is remembering his experiences as a boy, he acts like being saved from death was a bad thing. He talks about his family doctor, claiming that he ‘‘saved my life several times. Still, he was a good man and meant well.’’ One might suspect that Twain is being humorous here, but there are other instances of the apparent fatalism he had as a child. At one point, Twain remembers a day when he was nine years old and almost drowned in a creek. A slave woman saved him. He almost drowns several more times before he learns how to swim. Twain notes that he does not know "who the people were who interfered with the intentions of a Providence wiser than themselves,’’ but says he still holds a grudge.

When Twain is recounting his experiences as a young man, it appears he is afraid of death. In San Francisco, after he is issued a challenge to fight in a duel, Twain is concerned that if his opponent shows up he might die as a result. ‘‘I didn't sleep any,’’ says Twain. ‘‘I had plenty to think about.’’ When one of Twain's friends shoots the head off a flying bird before the duel, then lies and says it was Twain's shot, the opponent refuses to duel. In this case, providence is on Twain's side: ‘‘I don't know what the bird thought about that interposition of Providence but I felt very, very comfortable with it.’’

As an adult, when he witnesses the deaths of many family members, he regards death as negative. "To-morrow will be the 5th of June, a day which marks the disaster of my life—the death of my wife,’’ writes Twain. Later, in another passage about his wife's death, he laments some more,"She was my life, and she is gone; she was my riches, and I am a pauper.’’

Although Twain is flippant or scared about his own brushes with death, the death of his family hits him hard, and there is no mistaking his feelings about it at the end of the book. In the final chapter, which is devoted entirely to the topic of death, Twain remarks that even if he could, he would not bring back his deceased daughter:"If a word would do it, I would beg for the strength to withhold the word.’’ Twain says that he is "content" because Jean ‘‘has been enriched with the most precious of all gifts ... death.’’

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